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The Chicano Guernica

What was an invitation to paint a protest instead became the first Chicano Guernica manifestation by a Chicano artist. Fernando Barragan’s master piece “No Somos Animales” (We Are Not Animals, 2013, 7ft x13ft) is a daring raw canvas mural depicting violence, pain and anger in Chican@/Latin@ Communities. During the opening of Squaring off with Brushstrokes Barragan’s solo exhibition at the Jean Deleage Art Gallery in Boyle Heights, CA (November 4th, 2021 to February 26, 2022), he is invited by Casa0101 Theater Art Director Emmanuel Deleage to step up to the microphone and share with friends and guests a few words about his art. He stood in front of his monochrome black and white canvas, he moved close to the microphone as everyone waited for Barragan to share some insight. Barragan’s voice began to crackle with emotion. His eyes turn watery and his voice tied up into knots. He went speechless! He raises his hand and points to the painting hanging behind him, with tears strolling down his cheeks, choked up with feelings he manages to squeeze out, “This is why I paint!” The tears and the speechless moment became an extension of Barragan’s love, care and concern for his community. It was one of those rare occasions when the emotions transferred on canvas or any other medium of art by an artist draws back to its creator a relived memory expressed during the making of such art piece with strong feelings. It was a collective tear of many expressed and shared by Barragan during opening night.

In a similar fashion to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a painted protest against a fascist Inter-state (Germany and Spain) brutal violence towards a Basque town (Guernica) resisting the Spanish Franco regime dictatorship in 1937[1], Fernando Barragan took the brush and squared off on canvas with energetic strokes the multiple challenges faced by Latin@/ Chican@ communities: police brutality, state and gang violence, discrimination, immigration issues, exploitation and racisms. A victim to gang and state violence himself, Barragan carries over the impact/trauma on inter family relations and children growing up under such conditions into this artwork. Unlike Picasso’s cubist style of painting, Barragan is closer to Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco’s dramatic figurative work on canvas and walls. He shares the striking style of Orozco and Picasso’s tragedy interpretation of war, despair and inhumane ideologies based on biological classifications and a civilizing norm of violence inherited in modern societies/cultures.  Barragan’s canvas mural is a plea to all those involved in the creation of communities, in the deconstruction of alternative humane ways of living and being  to stop, reflect and catch up with our deepest desire to build healthy environments and find respectful means of understanding ourselves as a community.

No Somos Animales depicts a community that can well be interpreted as a scene in Palestine, in India, in Chiapas, In U.S African American spaces, In Guatemala, in Chile with the Mapuche indigenous people or any other place or space in the world facing violence. Although its interpretation is about a particular Chican@ space, nevertheless it contains a universal conversation.  The Chicano Guernica in No Somos Animales contains the same concerns of those by African artist Dumile Feni’s painting titled, African Guernica (1967): war and its effects.[2] For Feni it was the trauma and devastation of colonial wars on African people and the African continent. For Barragan it is the war waged on Chican@/ Latin@ and immigrant communities by the modern state. When Chicana artists Margaret Garcia reached out to Barragan for an art piece that enacted a protest for a play, Barragan shared in his own words that he “wasn’t going to provide a protest. I was going to give them a riot.” It is a strong timeless political statement made by Barragan towards the powers be and in particular to individuals. He invites us to examine what is community? How are we building community and who leads communities?  Latin American philosopher Juan Jose Bautista S. reminds us that for the most part modern societies are made of individuals vs. communities. This contradiction between community and individuals is a deep divide towards the collective potential in many communities that can aid against the egoistic tendencies embedded in modern neoliberal cultures by rescuing the collective virtue known as solidarity. This brings up the following question as to how a community interprets itself. Is it as subject to subject or is it a subject /object relation?

The themes fused in No Somos Animales are made of past and present historical moments, the death of Los Angeles Times Chicano reporter Ruben Salazar in 1970 by sherrifs.[3] Barragan’s draws from his Mexican heritage of resistance by including in the painting one of the strongest symbols in the western hemisphere, the presence of ‘La Virgen de Guadalupe’ who led during the early 19th century the people’s political resistance during Mexico’s struggle for independence. It is the same symbol that the anti-imperialist Indigenous rebels, the Zapatistas hold as a banner along with many other icons close to their cause.  Scholar Miguel Leon Portilla describes this powerful indigenous icon Tonantzin Guadalupe (Tonantzin in Nahuatl language translates to our mother) as the most significant fountain of inspiration and Mexican identity.[4] In the canvas La Virgen de Guadalupe is side by side with the Chican@ pueblo. She is not one step behind or one step ahead. She is shoulder to shoulder with the people. No Somos Animales does not bypass the theological content. Barragan understands the liberating agency in Tonantzin Guadalupe. Without any doubt it is a matriarch symbol of Pueblo, Lucha and voluntad. It is in voluntad (will) were the power of the people resides and not in Chican@ /Latin@ politicians who have made a career in politics.

The wall size canvas links Chican@ experiences in U.S history; the expatriation of hundreds of thousands of Chican@s and Mexican families to Mexico during the great depression (1929-1939). Operation Wetback in 1954 would again repeat the discrimination bias and racist laws towards the removal of Mexicans and Chican@s from U.S soil. The same can be said of the Japanese American experience during WWII incarceration in internment camps. The painting puts forth why the continuation of racist policies? Why the continuation of a judicial system that accompanies many historical tragedies of confinement, displacement, and discrimination all throughout U.S history. Why the repeat?

The epic character in No Somos Animales is borderless in content. The energy and charge in the canvas mural is full of rage. It is Barragan’s cathartic boom not only aimed at releasing energy; it is a constant volcanic eruption to transcend our given circumstances to make way for positive change. The visual language found in the mural stems from the marginalized mestizo and indigenous working class in Chican@/ Latin@ barrios. What distinguishes Barragan’s work is that he believes in what the pueblo believes in. The footsteps and chants can be heard in the mural from afar. It is painting that carries sounds and cries.

Barragan challenges the progressive language of visual communications today by painting the life of the community. He does not deviate with this canvas mural to colorful scenes common in urban artwork. He is straight forward. His brushes are first soaked with the pueblo’s sweat and dipped in heart before returning to the canvas. There are no distortions of the human body in No Somos Animales as a decadent expression by artists whom turn hopeless. Barragan holds on to hope and does not let go. And if he can’t find it, like poet and writer Eduardo Galeano once said, “He goes looking for it.”  He does not exclude from his process his intellect or his historical awareness. Barragan amplifies the continental experience of all those familiar with la Lucha and la Causa!

The reflections in what I have termed the Chicano Guernica in No Somos Animales is more than a testimony, it is a philosophical critique in motion that seeks to expose the tools our communities, educators, and leaders use to interpret reality which more than often repeats the errors of the past. It is a push to gain ground on a level of consciousness that does not justify on includes exploitation and injustices as the only means of acquiring some sort of upward social mobility.

This essay is dedicated to writer Ngũgĩ  wa Thiong’o.

Closing Reception for Squaring off With Brushstrokes by Fernando Barragan February 26, 2022, 6pm to 9pm
www.casa0101.org

Notes.

[1] https://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp

[2] https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-06-03-iconic-south-african-works-dumile-fenis-african-guernica/

[3] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/prominent-latino-journalist-ruben-salazar-killed-50-years-ago-tackled-n1238011

[4] Miguel Leon Portilla, Tonantzin Guadalupe: Pensamiento nahuatl y mensaje cristiano en el Nican mopohua, Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico, 2000 (page 14).